“Fallout” and the Not-Infallible Theory of Mutually Assured Destruction

Illustration by Joy Chen

By Thaddeus Yeung
Published on January 3rd, 2021

The Fallout franchise, a popular game franchise owned by Bethesda Game Studios, adopts the artstyle and mindset of American society in the 1950s shortly after WW2 and the USSR’s successful atomic bomb test in 1949. Much of the franchise’s music comes from the 1950s, and many characters and locations are reminiscent of what America imagined was the future - sentient robots with laser weapons exist in the same world as cars, architecture, consumerist culture and 1950s music. America’s Cold War mindset is also evident in the post-apocalyptic world, with anti-communist posters found littered in the wasteland.

Fallout 4, the franchise’s latest game of 2016, explores this Cold War mentality in depth. The central tenet of the game is “war never changes” - a saying repeated by the protagonist at the beginning and end of the story. Like earlier entries in the series, the player explores the post-apocalyptic world after a devastating nuclear conflict. The USA and China have become the world’s sole superpowers after securing most of the world’s energy and resources, which are in shortage. After both scramble for even more resources, US-China tensions escalate from rivals to enemies, and a cold war escalates into a hot war and, ultimately, total nuclear war. The player’s journey in the wasteland is a microcosm of the world at large - while the Fallout universe was destroyed by nuclear conflict, the parties in the game also eventually end up in a hot war with each other after ratcheting up tensions, an ironic twist.

Ideological differences between different groups in the wasteland erode trust, and step-by-step escalation eventually leads to a conflict detrimental to all parties. When the Brotherhood of Steel and the Institute clash, both motivated by their own interests and ideologies, both parties suffer significant losses, while gaining little. Similarly, in the Fallout universe, the Great War did not benefit China or America; rather, both nations were destroyed.

This seems to be in stark contrast to the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction, that war between multiple nuclear powers cannot and will not happen because both are aware that they face total destruction. Can we simply write this off as a result of Fallout’s writers not having considered MAD? Or are other factors at play. Was there a situation where both countries were aware of MAD and tried to prevent nuclear war but failed?

An excellent case study on the danger of escalation is WW1. The war caused enormous damage, taking 8.5 million lives. Germany was crippled, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were dismantled, Russia descended into revolution, Italy suffered heavy casualties and did not get the lands it desired, and France and the UK became heavily indebted to the US. All belligerents suffered greatly, and the “winners” made minimal gains considering their losses. Territorial gains of France and the UK in the Middle East did not offset their heavy debt and casualties, and many Italians, including Mussolini, felt Italy’s gains were not proportional to the casualties it sustained. The war was clearly undesirable for most major belligerents, yet it occurred anyway. The war began in a tit-for-tat escalation; Austria-Hungary demanded the trial of Gavrilo Princip, Russia intervened, Germany mobilized its troops, and eventually, the members of the Triple Entente and Central Powers were pulled into the conflict. Some even originally thought the war would be over by Christmas. If the belligerents had understood the consequences of escalation, would they have committed to war?

Miscalculations aside, accidents can easily spiral out of control. In a bid to protect Cuba from American intervention, the USSR sent missiles to Cuba, resulting in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which almost led to nuclear conflict. If not for Navy Vice Admiral Vasily Arkhipov, a Soviet submarine would have unleashed nuclear weapons on the US. The Spanish-American War of 1898, too, started over an accident, namely the sinking of the USS Maine in Cuba. Who is to say an accident in the South China Sea, for example an accidental collision between a US destroyer with a Chinese frigate, wouldn’t lead to greater consequences if politicians do not rush to de-escalate?

The theory of MAD and how it prevents nuclear war is based on the assumption that both sides understand what is at risk if escalation happens. However, as history tells us, this is not always the case - similar to the Fallout universe, errors in judgement and failure to de-escalate means that, despite MAD, a major conflict is not impossible in the 21st century.

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